Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Port of Call: Portugal

July 19, 2018

In recent decades, global tourism has experienced continual growth. International arrivals have increased from 25 million in 1950 to roughly 1.2 billion in 2018, with UNWTO forecasting that arrivals will hit the 1.8 billion mark in just a dozen years. Most of this can be traced to a big boost in air traffic (averaging at 8% per year) over the last decade, which has raised the contribution of travel and tourism to the economy from $6 trillion in 2006 to $8.27 trillion in 2017.

But not all this growth has been equal. Areas associated with Islamic terrorism, such as the Middle East and North Africa, have suffered limited growth, and Europe and the Americas have played steady-eddy. The biggest winner has been the Asian sub-region, which has regularly clocked over 9% increases in traffic. This has been due to traditional outbound players such as the US (73 million) and UK (64 million) being challenged in the last decade by China, which, in just one year, rocketed from 11 million (2014) to 128 million outbound travellers in 2015 (and 154 million now) —and that’s with just 7% of their population owning passports—.

The victors of the future will be emerging markets. Doubling the growth in traffic registered by more advanced economies, the world is switching from a 70/30 split in traffic to advanced and emerging markets to a 40/60 in favour of the latter. This all works to the benefit of a country that, thanks mainly to its role as a key plank in western Europe rather to than any market fundamentals, regularly escapes the ’emerging’ label: Portugal. The poorest country west of Hungary (with a GDP of $248.9bn), its euro crisis was a nasty hybrid of the ones in Greece and Italy, except without even a boom to start with.

The upshot? Despite domestic demand being rather measly, exports revenues have grown by more than half since 2008 and imports by only a tenth, resulting in a net trade position improvement of more than 10%. And a giant slice of this sunshine story has to do with tourism (the other—motor vehicle parts—is not as sexy).

Over the past decade, the Portuguese PR machine has swung into action to such great effect that it is currently hard not to find a travel editorial that’s not plugging the vineyards of Douro, the coast of Algarve or nightlife in Lisbon. Just before the crisis, tourism contributed roughly 10% of Portugal’s GDP. Now that has doubled, hitting 20.5% this year, placing it ahead of Spain, the EU’s biggest tourist destination, where tourism accounts for 16% of the GDP. In short, Portugal is undergoing the same double-digit, fast-track growth as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines in the tourism stakes.

This makes Lisbon and its environs a great place to look at how the luxury hotel industry is coping with a significant uptick in visitors. The answer is far from given in a world where Bali concretes over paddy fields to set up villas while the Philippines closes the island of Boracay after tourists were accused of ruining it. Quite apart from volume, the real queries are “who are these new arrivals” and “what do they want”? These are not easy questions to answer when over 80% of arrivals are Europeans of all income brackets, and the Asian contingent—with its increasing financial firepower—continues to snowball.

Which is why we’ll be treating Lisbon as a lab. Putting the idioms and subcultures that the luxury industry is trying to articulate in this bright, new dawn of travel into petri-dishes, the time has come to fathom whether some kind of a lingua franca can be gleaned: a challenging task when the wealthy are on the prowl for ecumenical experiences rather than objects; the middle-class will lean on deals or other forms of leverage that co-opt HNW lifestyles; and the poor will strive to make getting by on a dime look Instagrammable. The effort is nonetheless worthy, as identity-issues can often mean the difference between life and death for hotels.

Case Study (i): The Tivoli Liberdade
Type: Business Class

View from the Sky Bar at the Hotel Tívoli Liberdade, Lisbon © 2015 Aaron Saunders. Accessed July 16, 2018. 

 

Located on Avenida Liberdade—Lisbon’s equivalent to the Champs-Élysees—the Tivoli is flanked by boutiques, fountains, cafés and trees that lead, like belly-fluff, from Lisbon’s jacaranda-lined navel up to the priapic statue of the Marquis de Pombal (who rebuilt Lisbon after its devastating Enlightenment-age earthquake); an exuberant, immodest presence that is oddly offset by the surrounding buildings—ugly seventies hangovers for the most part—.

Inside the city’s grande dame, the double-storey atrium is a bland art-deco affair. Full of golds, emeralds and a glass-roof that drenches the set-up in sunlight, the hotel was originally built in 1933 but underwent a renovation last year, when the Tivoli group was integrated into its owners, Minor Hotels. The result is an impersonal blend of historic heft and glamour.

The stately suites upstairs are decked in muted tones and marble-clad baths, upholstered so as not to frighten or disturb the jet-lagged globalistas. On the top floor at the Sky Bar, views that stretch down to the River Tagus are ruined by preening teenagers perching expensive bottles of plonk at the end of withered, anorexic arms. Behind them, lurks Lisbon’s architecture (which smuggles so many indigenous trends, from manueline to pombaline, into the lexicon; so as to make other European traditions seem derivative), a gorgeous backdrop groaning silently beneath a threatening posse of cranes.

Cold display at “Cervejaria Liberdade”, Lisbon © 2017 Luiz Ferraz. Accessed 16 July, 2018. 

 

Dinner is superb, if a little dear. Spider-crab is often thrown away in Britain, having been cast as vermin that gobbles more worthy (read: expensive) creatures. Sweeter and meatier than its demotic cousin, the brown crab, its brown-meat doesn’t need much attention. A squeeze of lemon and a dab of cream or mayonnaise unlocks the fatty, rich, livery taste of the animal’s cavity—a trick the ground-floor restaurant, “Cervejaria Liberdade”, pulls off with aplomb.

Breakfast is anarchic. Cold offerings (heaps of salami, cheeses, fruits and a giant slab of honeycomb to bayonet) are top-tier, but the cooked options fall short. Each dish is reminiscent of the Indonesian patisseries that take pride in their stacks of gleaming European cakes. These often look the part but, on first bite, are clearly built backwards (upon appearances, not recipes). The egg is raw, the bread is stale; the hot dog’s sausage-skin disguise convinces no-one. The service is diffident. There is no bacon.

Case Study (ii): Santa Clara 1728
Type: Chichi Deluxe

Foyer at Santa Clara 1782, Lisbon © santaclara1728.com. Accessed 16 July, 2018. 

 

With nothing so bourgeois as a business-centre, Santa Clara 1782 was designed less as a hotel than as a way-station for peregrine plutocrats by acclaimed architect Manuel Aires Mateus; being the Rodrigues hoteliers’ first venture in the capital after experimenting elsewhere.

Its six bedrooms are reminiscent of the English Cotswolds properties that blend hobbity history (like oak beams and flagstones) with modern fixtures like designer light fittings. It’s all very swanky, though its primness might tempt many to remove the ‘s’ and leave it at that. Local pink-hued limestones surround an oak dining table by Carl Hansen, and antique oil paintings are lit by a Groppi chandelier. Who knew urbanity was so aseptic?

The overall impression pokes at Marx’s grumblings on mystification. Disingenuously spa-like (to my old-fashioned mind, meditation sits at the opposite end of cupidity) and zealously nerdy (as if its purpose was to achieve first place in an architectural rag rather than be soiled by the presence of people), whenever the two ideals of luxury and style conflict, the latter gains the upper-hand: most obviously, in the lack of air-conditioning.

Interior of “Prado Restaurante”, Lisbon © pradorestaurante.com. Accessed 16 July, 2018.  

 

At Santa Clara, food comes on request, but it is compromised by shrill health options (hailing from the hotel’s farm at Casa no Tempo) that boost the ego without availing the appetite. Better to yomp towards “Prado”. Meaning “meadow” in Portuguese, the name touches on the restaurant’s attempt to restore some bucolic beauty to a 19th century factory. Located in Baixa, at the foot of the city’s cathedral, it’s a sage-green creature with a Skandi undercoat run by Antonio Galapito, a former protégé of Nuno Mendes’ in London.

Here, ‘ingredients-led’ is not a buzz-phrase. The protean menu changes regularly to reflect what’s fresh in the farms and hot at the markets. The atmosphere is relaxed, the service informal; the dishes scream simplicity. Most memorable is the Barrosan beef tartare wrapped in grilled Galician cabbage. Too often an ode to sushi’s textures without any of its flavours, the tartare seems aged or smoked, or has—more likely—had these notes imparted to it by the frazzled green sleeve that it sits in. The result is a masterpiece in understatement, and the quality continues with dessert, where acorn ice-cream, pearl barley and a red seaweed known as dulse draw nutty, sweet, earthy and salty flavours into an edifying chord.

Case Study (iii): Palácio Seteais
Type: Historicist Tourism

Palácio Seatais on a sunny day, Lisbon © Viagens & Resorts. Accessed 16 July, 2018.

 

Seteais Palace’s front lawn doesn’t have ghostly mists rolling across it so much as sulky squalls. Outside the bedroom’s 20-foot high windows it looks as though we have been swallowed by a cadre of clouds. The plangent pitter-patter of rain provokes a flurry of nostalgia. Inside, antique furniture, giant tapestries, opulent frescoes, exotic gardens and the old-school uniforms of the staff all contribute to living out the swansong of the continental aristocracy; a flimsy fin de siècle reverie we all conspire to summon.

But it’s not quite a spent anachronism. Deep within its cadences are the pitiful rhythms of history; a subtle, broken beauty; the hopeful hopelessness best conjured by the Spanish poet, Lorca, in his “Sonnet on a Garland of Roses”:

But hurry, let’s entwine ourselves as one, our mouth broken, our soul bitten by love, so time discovers us safely destroyed.

Bittersweet melancholy aside, the weather reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s neat turn of phrase about how living in England is like being immersed in a wet lettuce. Portuguese royals and aristos once visited the sanctuary of Sintra’s peaks to escape the heat, but June has been unseasonably reasonable this year, so dipping 10 degrees Celsius is cruel. Thankfully José, an old palace-hand—by turns formal and informal, yet always convivial and charming—brings in warm mint teas. The Asian-inspired Amantara spa douses me in natural oils and the wine cellar sends me trilling into realms of nonsense as we work our way through local bottles. The sybaritic spree is topped off with that most Portuguese staple: a sea-food cataplana—the Iberian equivalent of a tagine—on the terrace.

Azulejos with the “Dom Pipas” coat of arms © 2013 Rafael P. Accessed 16 July, 2018.

 

Tipped off by a local training her puppy as we sip wine in backstreets, “Dom Pipas” by-the-train-station hardly occupies the most salubrious part of town. In fact, it could hardly be further from the tourist trail that arrives in lines of road-traffic UNESCO is attempting to divert. Even so, it’s crammed.

Four courses down, it’s easy to see why. Unencumbered by online ratings and served by locals (including the owner), this simple tavern conjures food that’s never failed a lie-detector test. You’ve never met more honest grub. A heap of lamb chops is unceremoniously dumped alongside chips that glisten in hot oil. Fuss is wonderfully lacking. And all for a bill that would make McDonald’s blush.

Case Study (iv): Browns Central
Type: Middle-ground Designer

Interior of Browns Central, Lisbon © Destinia. Accessed 17 July, 2018.

 

The action at Browns is nauseatingly hip. Within its pistachio shell, the shelves are stacked with trendy books that no one reads; the picture of a library as a sign rather than a repository of knowledge in a half-arsed concession to culture. In fairness, it’s the perfect hat-tip to a generation that writes more than it reads.

Staff are cheery and helpful and the rooms well-kitted, but the spaces are more cluttered than clever, giving the overall impression of a young man refusing to upgrade his car but filling it with costly gizmos. This should come as no surprise, considering the hotel opened with forty bedrooms but somehow doubled its capacity without expanding. (Nor is it good enough with competitors like The Hoxton lurking in the shadows, to seduce the tourist with high-quality design at low prices and with add-on frills, like budget airlines).

Action at “A Cevicheria” © TripAdvisor. Accessed 17 July, 2018.

 

Brazilian-raised chef Kiko Martin repeatedly leaves the lisboetas cooing. “O Talho” (the meaty option) was the first to cause a stir, followed by “A Cevicheria”, before “Asiatico” was set up round the corner in a larger, more ambitious space last year.

Of the three from the “Fat Duck”-trained chef, however, it’s “A Cevicheria” that rises above being simply popular. Regularly attracting 1-2 hour-long queues that people are more than happy to wait out every night (thanks in part to the helpings of pisco sours being served at its alfresco street-side bar), the crowd is mixed and prices reasonable.

Two-litres of the lip-pursing Peruvian cocktail later and its time to step up to the counter beneath an Instagram-friendly octopus sculpture lunging at punters from the ceiling. Shining white, with a nautical vibe that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the food is exceptional. Chunks of fresh fish are marinated in citric juices, lightly seasoned and paired with purees and jellies in a myriad combinations. The best is tuna, orbited by lychee, hazelnut and beetroot satellites.

Case Study (v): Memmo Alfama
Type: Pricey Hipster

Sky deck at the Memmo Alfama © Hotels Combined. Accessed on 17 July, 2018.  

 

Located on the backroads of the Alfama neighbourhood, Memmo’s corridors mimic the twists and turns of the surrounding streets. Outside the warren, its minimalist terrace (complete with inset pool) provides a horizon of colour-bands reminiscent of Hockney’s Californian swimming pools, as yachts and tankers glide across the Tagus. These playful juxtapositions continue throughout, with olden walls versus microcement, whitewash meeting with designer furniture, etc.

Funky little touches, from a helpful library of Lisbon texts to an honesty-fridge, abound. And the good cheer rubs off on the guests: over breakfast in a Skandi-inspired ‘living room’, it’s obvious that folk are exchanging opinions rather than keeping to themselves. Many of the views expressed hit on the upstairs wine-bar and the mural by Vhils—a more talented, Portuguese Banksy.

Revving motors at RUA, Lisbon © NiT. Accessed on 18 July, 2018.

 

Manuel Andre Fernandes jettisoned degrees in biology and architecture to leap into the kitchen full-time after winning Portugal’s Masterchef in 2015. Studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Madrid prior to working under Henrique Mouro, he set up RUA with Ricardo Pereira last year.

Inspired by outlandish street-foods the chef brings together with neat, cerebral flourishes; the space is small but loud. Its centrepiece is a neon-bright mural by the artist Samina, which has something of a Japanese retro-gaming vibe about it. Indeed, the Asian theme forms a golden thread that strings its way throughout the menu, with Korean chicken wings and home-made kimchi (“two-weeks fermentation is the maximum we’re allowed before the authorities get sniffy”, the friendly Fernandes chuckles) making appearances.

Despite the flashy presentation, portion sizes are prodigious (the prawn tacos, for instance, come with a tower of seafood, chipotle and pico de gallo). The only under-performer is duck bao, whose bird is passive rather than plucky and massively out-gunned by the confit and caramelized onions. This misstep is quickly redeemed, however, by a raspberry dessert of chocolate and biscuits bashed into a thin crumble and sprinkled with pistachio dust–harking back to childhood days of digestive biscuit-smashing, or smuggling oneself into the pantry to scoff half-made cakes and other forbidden treats.

Local Highlights

Castelo de São Jorge © Inside Lisbon City Guide. Accessed on 18 July, 2018.

 

The castle that dominates Lisbon’s highest hill-top, São Jorge, was reclaimed from the Moors during the Second Crusade by Englishmen caught in poor weather. Alfonso Henriques did not forget their assistance and both sides eventually sealed the famous Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, the oldest pact in history that’s still in force. Today, the castle’s parts range mainly from the 15 to the 18th centuries, having fulfilled many roles, from educating the poor to providing medical care for the military.

View of the township of Sintra © vamosparaportugal.com. Accessed on 20 July, 2018.

 

Sintra has an eclectic, almost Alpine type of architecture with steep roofs and wooden gables, but instead of snow-capped peaks and ice-rimmed lakes, the Portuguese equivalent of jungle sprouts around springs and waterfalls in a scene that prompted Lord Byron to scribble “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes / In variegated maze of mount and glen. / Ah, me! What hand can pencil guide or pen, / To follow half on which the eye dilates/ Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken/ Than those whereof such things the Bard relates, / Who to the awestruck world unlocked Elysium’s gates.”

Palácio Nacional de Sintra © parquesdesintra.pt. Accessed on 18 July, 2018.

 

Originally the site of a Moorish palace, Palacio Nacional was conquered in 1147 by the same Alfonso who took São Jorge (along with Castelo dos Mouros, above). Most of what remains today, however, can be traced to his 15th century successor, João I. Muscling in above the centre of town are plenty of delights, like Mudejar-style mullioned windows, but only two parts are unmissable: the Palatine Chapel, which blends Moorish motifs and colour-schemes with a Romanesque order, and the domed Sala dos Brasões, which provides a snapshot of Portuguese nobility in the form of a wooden-coffered ceiling puckered with coats-of-arms.

One of two masonic ‘initiation wells’ at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra © observador.pt. Accessed on 18 July, 2018.

 

There’s something morally offensive about Quinta da Regaleira, a series of garnished gardens and spectral follies to entertain the ruling classes. Everywhere, a fundamental misgiving ruins the sensualist fun. Visitors are surrounded by jaded refinement (from aberrant arabesques to warbling manueline) in an architectural expression of fiddling whilst an enfeebled society crumbled. Perhaps that’s just me letting retrospection strangle a good view, but it feels pertinent because it can be linked to our Zeitgeist, a time where it feels we’re all hesitant, waiting for something to think.

Aerial view of the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon © Jaszmina Szendery (Atlas Obscura). Accessed on 18 July, 2018.

 

Starting construction on the site of Henry the Navigator’s hermitage in 1502, Jerónimos is famous for being the last spot Vasco da Gama and his crew kipped before leaving for India. In the unforgiving light of day, it is not overly attractive. Obscenely ornate, its syncretic sinews and baudy baubles borrow far too much from plateresque traditions, turning Gothic into frothy mess instead of keeping to Romanesque reserve. But by night, the details—a profusion of nerve-endings—are charitably lost and the shape, the vision, remains.

In a world where averages no longer suffice (thanks to a middle-class that can no longer be funnelled into one homogeneous weltkultur), the likes of Sheraton, Hilton et al. are starting to look like classic American cars to the rest of the world. Oversized, over-powered and designed by committee, the big beasts in both industries are slowly being put out to pasture. Into this vacuum, the smaller, more supple identities step in, like tiny mammals coming to replace the dinosaurs.

A kaleidoscope of affinities, the most obvious issue is the new hotels often feel cynical. Like donning different clothes to see separate groups of friends, part of this is inevitable: you don’t want to get caught in your opera get-up by environmentalists who saw you in an anorak. It comes across as insincere. So, as is frequently the case in a society that fetishises fons et origo to balance out its obsession with technological advances, the real issue is one of authenticity.

While the international middle-ground was, authentically, crap; this new portfolio risks the opposite: an inauthentic brilliance. Buried deep beneath its thrills and spills, there’s a suspicion that everything has been mediated. An overwhelming sense that instead of interviewing Bob Dylan and getting a load of incomprehensible mumbles and staccato sentences, you’ve got Madonna speaking and thinking like a politician, tailoring everything to the audience.


In other words, if the person is put before the hotel in the identity stakes, it’s like putting the cart before the horse. Deep down most people don’t know who they are. If psychology from Freud to Lacan can be said to have a point, it is ultimately that where we might expect to unlock a personality there is in fact just smoke and mirrors: the person remains an enigma.

This makes seeking validation an exercise in futility. Like kids, adults often want authority, not choice; clear guides to taste in which they can reveal their judgement, their virtues. Breaking this monolith into a coded mosaic of offers breaks their self-esteem because it dissolves the obvious modalities, the governing truisms. If this is flipped, customers must either devote more time to becoming knowledgeable on such matters or pay money to someone who can decide on their behalf (hence the proliferation of taste-makers and doers). Many will be able to do neither, creating disaffection and frustration.

The outcome is that these new idioms, these niches, will only, paradoxically, survive if each—which must perceive itself as a besieged subculture to retain its currency and converts—can draw on a vast, globalised pool, or at least attract a large number of floating voters (and therefore, tend towards the global mean). Which ultimately means these options are far from the finished product. None scream, with Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other”. Instead, they simper: “Here we stand, we hold up a mirror”. And for most customers—such is human nature—they end up not liking what they see.


 

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel-guide hack(er) and book reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower or at Excvbitor (www.excvbitor.com) for jottings.